The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s rain-shortened race at Michigan…

1. Ford Sure

From Friday onward, there seemed to be no doubt this would be a Ford-dominated weekend. And…yep! It definitely was. Fords accounted for seven of the top eight finishers — including a Stewart-Haas Racing podium sweep (the first by a single team since 2008, according to ESPN).

We hear all the time about how much this track matters to manufacturers, which is pretty much a cliche at this point. It’s like, “Yeah, OK, we get it. Michigan is important to the OEMs.”

But it really is SO important to those who work in the auto industry, which makes an ass-kicking of this magnitude quite special to Ford.

“Man, it’s just an unbelievable start to the season with the wins and success we’re having,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “(We) come here to our home track with our employees here watching with their friends and family — to have this performance and strength across all of our teams, to win the race, it’s just tremendous for all the company.”

Ford has been having a great season (eight wins in 15 races plus the All-Star Race), but Michigan was the most dominant of Ford days.

So why this track? Perhaps the most crucial factor at the sweeping 2-mile oval was the engines.

“It’s a real honor to drive the Roush‑Yates engines when you get to a place like this because you can be a lot easier on your car,” Harvick said. “Doug Yates and those guys, they like to make big horsepower on the big end of the motor and put a lot of effort into this particular race weekend.”

Kurt Busch said Michigan is about bragging rights, and he can see the importance when all the bigwigs from various departments show up. And aside from just the engine, it’s hitting on every facet that truly elevates an organization.

“It’s a team effort to not have any weaknesses,” he said.

2. Boy oh Bowyer

Clint Bowyer’s career renaissance continued with his Michigan win, and there are likely more to come before the season is over.

A year like this one following a long slump makes for some fun stats, including:

— Bowyer went from October 2012 to March 2018 (nearly 5.5 years) between wins. Then it only took less than three months until his next win.

— Bowyer has almost as many wins this year (two) as he had top-10s in 2016 (three).

— Bowyer has now led 308 laps this season, which is more than double the previous four seasons combined (145).

No wonder the guy is so happy lately.

“We’re going to drink a little bit tonight, by the way,” he said. “That’s going to happen. I know you guys are questioning it. It’s going to happen tonight.”

3. No Hail Mary

Another wild-card type race, another lost chance for a driver outside the top 16 in points to steal a playoff bid. There was no Chris Buescher or Aric Almirola stealing a rain-shortened win this time, as a driver who already had a win just got another one.

Kasey Kahne crew chief Travis Mack had his driver stay out initially, but then called him to the pits before the final restart when the rain didn’t come in time.

Aside from that, it seemed surprising no one actually tried to pull some crazy strategy — especially in the win-and-in era. What do some of these teams have to lose?

I asked Bowyer crew chief Mike Bugarewicz about that, but he seemed to think the strategy wouldn’t have worked.

“In one sense, if you do that, yeah, maybe you win the race,” he said. “But I think if you’re that far off — if you’re a 24th-place car — I don’t know you’re going to compete with the top five cars (on a restart), to be honest. Maybe you can hold them off for a lap.

“Look at Harvick on the inside of us. We felt like we were a very competitive car. Him on four tires, it was a battle from that point coming to the start/finish line on the first lap. I think a guy staying out with no tires, already kind of struggling in the race, would have been a real challenge to try to pull that off.”

Maybe so. But based on the success of Kahne and Paul Menard using track position and clean air to run up front earlier in the race, you would have thought somebody would go for it with the rain about to arrive at any second.


4. NASCAR got it right in the rain

A rainy weekend like this one makes for intense scrutiny on NASCAR calls, but officials pretty much nailed it.

OK, there was that mixup at the end of the race where the pace car came down pit road when it wasn’t supposed to. But that didn’t affect anything about the race, since officials were just trying to end it at that point.

Other than that, all the calls were correct — even in tough circumstances.

Let’s start with Xfinity. Officials got past the end of Stage 2 despite a soggy day, then restarted the race after a caution as rain started to fall — a ballsy move, to be honest. It could have ended badly if the field had wrecked in the wet, but instead the fans at least got a battle for the win before the race-ending weather caution.

Then came Sunday. Everyone woke up a bit surprised with a drastically changed overnight forecast (which is why NASCAR hadn’t moved the race up with the 24-hour policy). A Monday race was starting to look like a foregone conclusion.

But officials waited out the rain, dried the track as fast as possible and then got the race started. There was an initial hiccup at the end of Stage 1 — NASCAR said pit road would be open before quickly realizing there weren’t enough laps in the stage to do so, then restarted the race with one lap to go in the stage.

NASCAR’s Richard Buck later said that was in line with policy. First of all, pit road is closed with two laps to go in a stage; second, teams had asked NASCAR to avoid situations under caution that would result in a strategy shakeup. That’s the fairest thing for everyone, which actually makes sense.

And finally, NASCAR called the race at the right time. With rain arriving again, there’s no chance the track could have been dried before darkness fell (Michigan doesn’t have lights).

Sometimes it seems that NASCAR makes questionable decisions, but I agree with all the ones they made this weekend — particularly under pressure.

5. Up Next

With no underdog taking advantage of a rain-shortened race at Michigan, there are seemingly three wild card races remaining of the 11 regular season events on the calendar: Sonoma, Daytona and Watkins Glen.

After an off-week next weekend, it’s time for Sonoma. It’s tempting to think an AJ Allmendinger type could win there, but recent Sonoma winners who are still active have been names like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex. So actually, it may be one of the familiar faces in victory lane instead.

That would be another blow to the playoff hopes of drivers mired deep in the standings — Jamie McMurray (19th), Daniel Suarez (21st) and Ryan Newman (22nd) among them — who could really use a road course win to propel them into the final 10 races this fall.

6 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race”

  1. As the season of YOUNG GUNS rolls on, let us consider how many races it took the current (and recent) guard, who got into top shelf equipment right away as rookies similar to today’s young guns, to earn their first wins:

    Kevin Harvick, 3 races
    Dale Earnhardt Jr., 12
    Jimmie Johnson, 13
    Carl Edwards, 17
    Matt Kenseth, 18
    Denny Hamlin, 21
    Greg Biffle, 23
    Tony Stewart, 25
    Kyle Busch, 31
    Ryan Newman, 35
    Jeff Gordon, 42
    Kasey Kahne, 47
    Kurt Busch, 48

    and that’s not even including strategy wins (Logano, 20) or plate wild cards (Brad K, 5)

    Now consider Erik Jones drove for the team which last year had a clear advantage above the rest of the field, and had 0 wins, only 5 top 5s, and 310 laps led

    And today, we have three old guys who finished 1-2-3, and the young gun on their team finishes 30th (was about 19th at the time of the spin, while teammates were all in the top 5 at that time)

    not saying these kids won’t win a bunch of races in a few years, but they are not the uber success nascar pushed them as… at this point in their respective careers, nascar’s current vets were winning and actually making a name for themselves, while today’s young guns are failing to produce

  2. Happy for Clint but darn I’m way past ready for Chevy to get their ducks in a row and win a few races. Namely, Chase!!

  3. The only things keeping me hanging on as a NASCAR fan is you and Bob Pockrass. I commend both of you for making a dying sport sound marginally interesting.

  4. Regarding the explanation from Richard Buck – Is it just me, or isn’t it the job of any self-respecting crew chief at this level to be able to make strategy decisions on the fly? His explanation makes it sound like the CC’s don’t want to have to make any hard decisions. Good grief!

  5. Why is no one talking about the Bubba Wallace debacle where he was penalized for pitting while pits were closed 2 restarts later (Pits coming to restart with 1 to go in stage, takes tail of longest line for the restart. Stays out under stage break, takes the lead but NASCAR says is penalized for pitting too early for the caution before the stage break at the stage break caution.) Bubba does not drop to the tail at the start finish line and everyone doubles up. In turn 3 then Bubba drops to the back and it screws everyone’s line up up.
    Larson came out 12th, but when Chase dropping back for a pitting too early penalty, he was 11th and lined up there. When Bubba dropped back Larson should have been 10th. Instead Larson gets put in 12th on the restart and Kyle Busch who got beat out by Larson got to start a row further up on the restart.

    NASCAR screwed the pooch on this restart and it really ended up costing the 42 as he lost track postion and changed his race.

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